Tips for Successful Armchair Genealogy

What is Armchair Genealogy?

Armchair genealogy is long distance genealogy.

Why Armchair Genealogy?

The ideal in genealogy research is to visit a research center yourself.  An in-person visit will allow you to see the scope of materials available, and let you examine resources personally so that you can make decisions about them.  The reality though, is that a research location may be too far away, you may not be able to afford to take a trip, it may be a poor weather season, or physical limitations may make it difficult to travel.

What Types of Resources Can I Get through Armchair Genealogy?

Services vary from institution to institution.  However, you may be able to get the following types of resources:

  • Newspaper articles, photos
  • Excerpts from books, articles, and monographs
  • Photographs – prints or scanned images
  • Family histories
  • Surname files
  • County histories
  • Historical publications
  • Local contacts
  • Vital records
  • Church and cemetery records
  • Unpublished manuscripts
  • Maps

Information regarding research services through the Grosvenor Room can be found here.

Tip #1 – Use Every Method Available 

  • Email
    • Look for THE most likely person to be responsible for distance research.  Many libraries will have web pages dedicated to local history, genealogy, or reference assistance.  If you are writing to a museum, historical society, or genealogical society, see if they have a library.  Some institutions only have a general contact email.
    • Drawback: Did your email request “get there” and did it get to the correct person?
  • Phone
    • Find out exactly who will help you.
    • “Are you the person who will be helping me?”
    • Write out what you need to request or ask about in advance.
  • Write a letter (or fax your request)
    • Probably your last option.
    • Provide a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  Be realistic on the size of envelope. 
    • Drawback: address your envelope to the right office and person.

 To contact the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, click here.

Tip #2 – Realities to Understand

  • The person who will do the long-distance search for you may change from one request to the next.
  • Most people handling research requests are not doing only that job.  They usually have other full-time responsibilities, too.  Reference librarians normally help library customers, answer phone inquiries, assist with Internet users, and your genealogical request is what they do in between.
  • People get pulled onto other temporary projects, get sick, go on vacation, retire, move to another job, get “down-sized” – in other words, they are not available 24/7.

 Tip # 3 – Be Specific

  • Specify what you want the person you contact to find for you.
    • Don’t waste their time and yours having them send you something you already have.  If they do, be considerate and don’t criticize.
  • Figure out what you already have and what you need.
  • Do not be afraid to specify exactly what you’re seeking.  Particularly if this is for a lineage application, etc. 

Tip #4 – Don’t Overwhelm the Searcher

  • Provide a reasonable number of items you want the researcher to locate for you.
    • Obituary search, etc.
      • Make a reasonable request and then make additional requests if you have a lot of material to obtain.
      • Five individual obituaries covering a period of death years is a good start.  If you request more, be prepared to wait longer.
  • Ask if there is a limit to the number of items that you can request.
  • Excessive number of items requested can really slow down getting the material you need.

 Tip #5 – Ask About Charges – First

  • Ask up front on first contact if there are charges.
  • Don’t assume that you’re getting service for free.  If you don’t ask, you may receive your material plus an invoice for copying, etc.
  • Institutions often have a minimum charge.
  • Basic fee may provide a specific number of copies – anything more costs extra.
  • Fees are often charged for lookups such as obituaries or vital record searches, whether or not the information is found.  As we all know, the research process can be time consuming.  In today’s economy, institutions need to charge in order to provide services.

To see the B&ECPL Research Fee Schedule, click here.

Tip #6 – Ask About Scanning

  • Can you obtain scans of photographs and text materials?
  • Scans of photos and documents helps with possible article publication and placement in any published family history.
  • There may be special instructions and fees associated with using an institution’s materials for publication, in an exhibit, or online.
  • Specify if you want a color scan or a black/white. Don’t leave it to a guess on the part of the person helping you.
  • Specify approximate dpi (scan quality) you need, especially if you plan to have it used in a published work, article or book.
  • Ask what formats you can receive the scans in.  There may be a variety of options – email, CD-ROMs, USB drive, FTP, etc.

To read reproduction information relating to B&ECPL materials, click here.

 Tip #7 – Do Not Wait Forever

  • Ask if there is a common turn-around time for your request type.
  • Be patient, but do not wait forever to get a response back from the research organization you have contacted.
    • Research requests can get lost on an employee’s desk.
    • Envelopes and letters can fail to show up in their mail.
    • Your timing can be “bad” and a large number of requests come on the same day.  You may be on the bottom of the stack.
    • Local genealogical and historical groups generally have part-time support so mail is not checked every day.

Tip #8 – Consider a Donation for Services Requested

  • First, determine if there is a charge of any kind for what you are trying to obtain.
  • If there is no charge involved, consider making a donation to the organization that has helped you.
  • A donation to the organization for their continuing genealogical research work will enhance your ability to get good service, and help others in the future.
  • Make a check out to the organization, not the person helping you.

To donate to the B&ECPL, click here.

Tip #9 – Interlibrary Loan

Many public, college, and society libraries offer Interlibrary Loan services to their community members.  Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a service in which library patrons can request that materials from other library systems be sent to your local library for you to borrow.  It is possible to request photocopies, books, and microfilm through ILL and most requests can be filled free of charge. 

If you have a B&ECPL library card, you can place an ILL request here.

Tip #10 – Resources for Long-Distance Research

  • Ancestry’s Red BookGro Ref CS49 .R55 2004 – A guide that gives details about what records are available for each state and where you are likely to find them.
  • County Courthouse Book – Gro Ref KF8700.A19 B46 2009 – Contact information for courthouses across the U.S.  Record holdings and fees may also be included.
  • Directory of Genealogical and Historical Societies, Libraries, and Periodicals in the US and Canada – Gro Ref CS5.D56 2008 – Lists institution/society contacts by state, province, and city.
  • Genealogical Research/Historical Organization Web Pages
    • Look for “Contact Us”
    • Research Requests
    • Staff Directory
    • Lookups
    • Volunteers
    • Genealogical/Historical Materials Index or Summary
    • Publications – Most genealogical and historical societies offer research materials for sale.  Use these lists to identify resources.
  • Genealogist’s Address Book – Gro Ref CS44 .B46 2009 – Includes contact information for research institutions and historical and genealogical societies across the United States.  Resources for special topics such as ethnic groups and religion are also included.
  • The Handybook for Genealogists Gro Ref CS47 .H36 2006  – Gives basic information on record groups by state.  Also includes listings of societies, repositories, and bibliographies of sources by topic.
  • Listservs – If there are email groups for an organization, you may be able to post research requests.
  • International Vital Records Handbook Gro Ref CS42.7.K46 2009 – Includes contact information for vital records and blank request forms by country and state/province.
  • Library catalogs –   Use these to locate materials.  Most libraries and societies have their materials in an online catalog.  To search the B&ECPL library catalog, click here.
  • – A union catalog of library materials across the country, as well as some foreign collections.  A good place to locate materials for research and where to find them.
  • Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness – Offers free lookups for some locations.  Sometimes there may be charges for parking or admittance fees, so be sure to ask.
  • Vital Rec – Find out where to obtain copies of U.S. vital records.

What Are Some Resources for Buffalo and Erie County Research?

Special Collections, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

Source: Family History Workshop, Don Rightmyer, Editor, Kentucky Ancestors

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